Cyber grooming is when someone (often an adult) befriends a child online and builds an emotional connection with future intentions of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking. The main goal of cyber grooming is to gain trust from the child, obtain intimate and personal data (often sexual in nature – such as sexual conversations, pictures, or videos) in order to threaten and blackmail the child further inappropriate material.
Perpetrators often use fake identities of a child or teen and approach their victims in child-friendly websites, leaving children vulnerable and unaware of the fact that they have been approached for purposes of cyber grooming. Conversations often start with inconspicuous and general questions about age, hobbies, school, family and progress into questions regarding sexual experience, with groomers convincing an exchange of erotic materials. In some instances, the child or teen can also unknowingly initiate the grooming process when they partake in websites or forums with lucrative offers such as money in exchange for contact details or intimate photos of themselves.
How children are groomed
Children and young people can be groomed online, in person or both – by a stranger or someone they know. This could be a family member, a friend or someone who has targeted them – like a teacher, faith group leader or sports coach. When a child is groomed online, groomers may hide who they are by sending photos or videos of other people. Sometimes the pictures will be of someone younger than them to gain the trust. They might target one child online or contact lots of children at the same time and wait for them to respond.
The relationship a groomer builds can take different forms. This could be a romantic relationship, mentor, an authority figure, a dominant and persistent figure. A groomer can use the same sites, games and apps as young people, spending time learning about a teenagers’ interests and use this to build a relationship with them. Children can be groomed online through social media, text messages and instant messaging apps, like WhatsApp. They can also be groomed through email, voice and video chats in forums, games and apps.
How to see them
The predictors have different tactics such as pretending to be younger, giving advice or showing understanding, buying gifts, giving attention, taking them on trips, outings or holidays. Groomers might also try and isolate children from their friends and family, making them feel dependent on them and giving the groomer power and control over them. They might use blackmail to make a child feel guilt and shame or introduce the idea of ‘secrets’ to control, frighten and intimidate. It is important to remember that children and young people may not understand they have been groomed. They may have complicated feelings, like loyalty, admiration, love, as well as fear, distress and confusion.
There perpetrators are categorized into at least three distinct types: distorted attachment, adaptable offender and ‘hyper-sexual’.
- Distorted attachment: This groomer believes he is in a romantic and consenting relationship with the child or teen he is grooming. Unlike what most people think about groomers, this offender reveals his identity to the victim and uses no indecent images of children. He spends a great deal of time becoming friendly with his victim before they meet face to face.
- Adaptable offender: Uses many identities online, adapting his grooming style to suit his purposes. This offender may or may not use indecent images, but he will view the person he is grooming as being sexually mature. It is not his objective to always meet the child or teen in real life.
- Hyper-sexual offender: Focuses on sharing and securing extensive numbers of indecent images of children. This offender will be part of an online network of sexual offenders, but has very little, if no, interest at all to meet his victim face-to-face. Researchers say this type of groomer will likely use multiple identities or a sexually explicit profile name and photo to make fast contact with a child or teen.
The cyber grooming process itself can happen quickly although the negative impact on the victim can be long-term. In addition to feeling violated and betrayed, a child who has been groomed may feel responsible for or deserving of the abuse, leading to self-blame and low self-esteem. Thus, it is crucial not only to raise awareness about the dangers of cyber grooming and safe practices of Internet technologies but also for international legislations to criminalize all types of child grooming. Cyber grooming is often considered to be a gateway to more serious offenses such as like human trafficking or sex trafficking.
Never wait until it is late; be #cybersmart. The first step is to seek help from someone that can be trusted such parents, a close family member or another trusted adult. At school, children can reach out to the sports coach or their favorite teacher – either online or in person. Parents are advised to take prompt action once they see the signs of cyber grooming. This may include blocking the predator, formally reporting their behavior on the platform itself, and reporting to the police.
Be cybersmart, be proactive, be reactive; prevent and report cyberbullying incidents and help us keep Eswatini safe and secure.